Carlin’s Straw Environmentalist

When I was in my teens, like maybe around age 14, it really annoyed me to hear about “saving the planet.” I thought it was faulty messaging. “People don’t care about trees and icebergs!” I’d think. “People care about people! So let’s emphasize that we’re trying to save OURSELVES, not the planet! People aren’t motivated by whales, we’ve got to appeal to self-preservation!!!”

This is no original thought, and is probably most famously conveyed by that George Carlin quote from 1992 (“The planet isn’t going anywhere. WE are!”) that also has some real nice things to say about “these self-righteous environmentalists.” You can click the link to read or watch the clip below.

As I’ve grown over the years, I am now much more forgiving of the use of “save the planet.” It’s not the best term for all audiences (see: pedantic little 14 year old me, or vociferous treehugger-haters) but I now see that 1) It is valid to think of nature as something that has inherent value, 2) that view of nature is compelling to some, and 3) the “…to save ourselves” part can be inferred from our dependence on the planet.

For people who already understand that the wellbeing of humanity is extremely dependent on the environment we inhabit, there is little practical difference between saving the planet and saving ourselves. Granted, there would be a difference if we were considering offing humanity to “save the planet,” but that’s such a disagreeable opinion (though maybe not to Carlin) that I think we can safely ignore it.

There still remains some ambiguity about the word “save”: what constitutes saving the planet? From who or what are we trying to save it from? Or do we mean save as in preserve from the passage of time?

Forgive me for getting into the weeds, but we can probably agree that by “save,” we generally mean protecting the planet (which includes the specks on it that are us) from human-caused perturbations (ex. ozone depletion, sea level rise, global warming) that seem mostly quite bad for humans and other beings.

So putting it all together, “save the planet” is a decent abbreviation for “reducing the human-caused disruption of the environment in order to benefit humans’ and maybe other beings’ wellbeing” But “save the planet” is quicker to say, albeit kind of cheesy sounding by now. Slogans are tough, man.

By the way, what environmentalists was Carlin talking about? It seems very incorrect to say that environmentalists are motivated only because “they’re worried that some day in the future they might be personally inconvenienced.” All the environmentalists I know are motivated by their concern for others, especially future generations. And they prove it by happily taking on what looks like more personal inconvenience, for the sake of other people.

So I don’t like that some people might be encouraged by Carlin’s straw man to stoke a cynical stereotype that environmentalists are mostly stupid, arrogant, and selfish. Obviously that’s not true. And in general, caricaturing a big group of people as stupid, arrogant, and selfish is really not very helpful most of the time. Right? But that was comedy, where that kind of thing flies.

What does resonate with many people, and what I find less objectionable, is Carlin’s emphasis on the grandness of the planet. How incomprehensibly old, big, complicated, and powerful it is compared to humans. Planet Earth really is something to marvel at! Most of it is very hard to disturb indeed, being a whole lot of rock. But the thin little biosphere and atmosphere on the outside is much more easily altered. The proof is incontrovertible: we’ve altered them severely.

Where Carlin’s stand-up veers from reality once again is by downplaying the extent to which we’ve changed the biosphere and atmosphere. Atmospheric CO2 has blown past quantities not seen in millennia. Vertebrates are going extinct at least 100x faster than usual. So no, not 25 species a day for all of eternity.

I also object to his passive view that we humans are part of a world too big to control and thus it’s not worth worrying our little heads about things like water quality and air pollution. That is none other than a rejection of responsibility, when in reality there are very clear environmental injustices that people have committed and are currently committing. Our decisions, which we are making every moment of our lives, affect other people, and that’s not something we can or should simply forget about. Is my existentialism showing?

All in all, Carlin’s bit comes off as a “we’re all fucked and nothing matters” kind of thing, which can sometimes be poetic, but isn’t my cup of tea in this rendition. I think this attitude denies the natural (and admirable) human drive to survive and pursue meaningful goals. Yes, it can be overwhelming to think about how many problems there are. But the solution isn’t to pretend that nothing matters and care about as few people as we can stomach. There’s better ways to cope! Like by living a healthy life in a supportive community, working hard on fulfilling pursuits, and cultivating mindfulness to deal with those racing thoughts. This is the same old advice that’s been passed down and reaffirmed for just about as long as humanity remembers. Let’s remember that Carlin was a comedian—has ever a comedian been a role model for coping?

If you know me, you’ll know that I stand against fatalism, pessimism, defeatism—whatever you call it. I hope you’re with me.

As you can see, I’m on a blogging blitz (It’s like September 2021 all over again). If you’d like to subscribe, here’s a box. Let’s take this relationship off Instagram, y’all 😉

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